In Montreal, the mix of English and French language makes for a unique cultural experience. It is the largest city in North America in which French is the primary language. If you are an English-speaker, you are considered a minority.
It’s been a long time coming for hip-hop in the city. After the Toronto scene’s astronomical rise in the Drake-dominated past decade, Montreal is the next logical Canadian city to blow. Much like a Drizzy cosign in the 6, a collaboration with local legend Kaytranada is the new right of passage.
To say the city is proud of Kaytra would be an understatement. The producer has put the city on the map with an impactful resonance that has not been felt since Arcade Fire’s 2000s indie-rock takeover. With the beatmaker opening the gates, it feels like it is only a matter of time before a rapper from the city has their big moment.
With so much talent and notoriety around the city, Montreal will soon have its moment. The French-speaking majority gives anglo artists a unique opportunity to tap into a refined yet engaged audience. Here are 11 English-speaking Montreal rappers who should be on your radar.
Nate Husser is a hometown hero. Hailing from the Little Burgundy borough, the rapper has quietly been putting in work for years, first as a member of The Posterz trio and subsequently as a solo act. He has the unique ability to produce both incredibly dense lyrical content and absolute bops, knowing when to switch between one and the other.
Earlier this year, he signed a distribution deal with EMPIRE. The deal has already proven fruitful in allowing his music to reach a larger audience, with Jake Paul blasting his “Iced Out Baby G” single as a celebratory soundtrack to his knockout win against Nate Robinson.
First stepping onto the scene as one-half of The Celestics — alongside older brother Kaytranada — Lou Phelps has since become a star in his own right. Phelps is heavily influenced by ’90s jazz-inspired hip-hop, taking cues from the likes of Q-Tip and Guru from Gang Starr to cultivate his own bouncy style. The rapper is able to go bar for bar against fellow young greats such as Jazz Cartier, Bishop Nehru, and Innanet James.
Having a famous family member also doesn’t hurt. Lou gets to pick from cream-of-the-crop Kaytra beats whenever he releases a project. However, the rapper is more than capable of holding it down by himself. Phelps’ consistent perseverance and original cadences has resulted in big placements. The storytelling single “What Time Is It?” was featured in an episode of HBO’s Ballers while “Come Inside” landed an appearance on the final season of Netflix’s Dear White People.
There is no rapper out of Montreal who is as original as Backxwash. Born in Zambia to a religious family, the rapper left for Montreal (via Vancouver) in her teenage years after graduating from university.
Around the same time that Backxwash moved to the city, she began transitioning. “It was such a big step going from a cis dude to someone who’s non-binary to a trans woman…I reached a point where I realized this is who I am,” she said in a 2020 interview with Xtra Magazine.
Last year, Backxwash received the highest Canadian music honor when she took home the 2020 Polaris Music Prize. The award highlights the greatest Canadian albums of the year, with a panel of journalists from across the country banding together to pick a winner of the $50,000 prize. (Past winners of the prize have included Arcade Fire, Feist, and Kaytranada.) She won the award for God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It, an album that is, in fact, unavailable on streaming due to discrepancies with sample clearances. (Ozzy Osbourne is among one of the artists interpolated on the project.)
Aside from the monetary reward, the Polaris Music Prize typically helps elevate the winning artist to new career heights. With $50K and endless possibilities awaiting, there is no telling what is next for Backxwash’s prosperous future.
Everybody loves a good mosh pit. And DeusGod is there to soundtrack the scene.
The rapper’s branding is one-of-a-kind. His crew goes by Klanada, a form of reclamation against the day-to-day adversities of being a Black man in Canada. He takes the shock value to the highest level during live performances, often sporting an article of clothing with the confederate flag.
DeusGod is from Montreal’s South Shore region and he reps the South to the most literal extent. He wears his influences on his sleeve, with particular inspiration from Three 6 Mafia’s horrorcore crunk sound sprinkled across his tracks. His underground aspirations came to full circle when he opened for cult legend Tommy Wright III on select dates throughout his 2019 Canadian tour.
We could all use a source of motivation in times like these. For Montreal’s hip-hop scene, SLM (pronounced “Slim”) is a beacon of light. The MC takes cues from Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie, with a strong boss lady presence. Her tongue stays razor sharp. No lyrics are minced; SLM’s voice is clear and confident on every track.
SLM has an animated energy. Her vibrant music videos help further this claim, with SLM exuding Slim Shady-like playfulness in each visual. Last year, the rapper released her debut album, SLM: The Complete Flex Season. The album is a warning shot to other artists in the city.
“There’s so much talent here. Being able to put on for a city with so much talent the world has yet to get hip to and have my art be a part of that is a great feeling,” SLM said in an interview with Also Cool in 2020. “It’s great to be doing what I love, among such great company.”
Naya Ali was a late bloomer. Coming to Montreal via Ethiopia, Ali grew up in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighborhood. “It’s a great, great area, and a great area for the arts”, Naya Ali told Global News of her upbringing.
She initially dipped her toes into hip-hop in her teen years but departed to focus on a degree. By 2018, Naya Ali returned to make her professional debut. Her music is accessible and versatile — it can soundtrack the club or a late-night study session.
A year after resurfacing, she made her rounds on the festival scene, performing at esteemed Canadian festivals such as Osheaga, Canada Music Week, and Festival d’été de Québec. She was set to continue the momentum into 2020 with a performance scheduled for SXSW, which was unfortunately canceled due to the pandemic.
Earlier this year, the rapper made history by winning a prize at the first annual Black Canadian Music Awards. She was the only artist from Quebec to receive an award at the event.
In 2016, before becoming a god amongst podcasters, N.O.R.E. trekked to Montreal for a club performance.
One of the opening acts was St. Henri rapper KGoon, who was hungry to make a name for himself. He saw the concert as an opportunity to show his worth. While serving as an opening act for the show, he stunned the crowd with a high-octane rendition of his street hit, “100 Bandz.”
The performance impressed N.O.R.E. so much that he invited the young rapper back to the stage to perform the song a whopping five times in a row. This was longer than N.O.R.E.’s own setlist that night. “I’ma bring this nigga to America and make this nigga a star,” the Drink Champs co-host promised in a video that made headlines across hip-hop blogs.
While the podcast took off and N.O.R.E. became busy, KGoon kept honing in on his craft and racking up streams. Legal troubles blocked him from a few large performance opportunities but that has not stopped the talent from continuing to hustle. The rapper has music with Murda Beatz in the vault and recently connected with Cardo Got Wings via Clubhouse with hopes of a collaboration on the horizon.
Speng Squire is a rapper’s rapper. He is perpetually hungry, his bars giving off the aura that he has not eaten for weeks on end. He is the type of artist who gets better with every project, each offering something new to say.
Montreal icon A-Trak called him the “future of the city” for good reason. Speng was close to inking a deal with Timbaland in 2018. Timbo even brought the young gunner onstage during his Summer Jam performance that year. Things fell through, however, but that did stop Speng from continuing to strive.
His mentor, DRTWRK, is a don in Montreal’s scene. He has earned credits producing for Lil Wayne, Saweetie, and Kanye West. However, no matter his accomplishments, DRTWRK always puts Montreal first. He executive produced both of Speng’s albums, Expressions of Now and This Moment Belongs to Us. With a watchful mentor who cares, and a trailblazing book of rhymes, Speng Squire will earn his second chance to shine in no time.
The most impressive part of Zoya’s craft is his multifacetedness. He is just as skilled at crooning as he is at rapping his ass off.
Born in Rouyn-Noranda, a small mining town near the Ontario border, the young creative moved to Montreal seven years ago at the age of 17 in hopes of giving his career a fighting chance. It was not long before he inked a contract with 7ième Ciel, one of Quebec’s top hip-hop labels.
Canadian rap legend Kardinal Offishall has transitioned into an A&R and mentor role at this stage in his career. It was him who helped young Zoya secure a deal with Universal Music Canada (a joint venture with 7ième Ciel).
“I’m super proud to finally and officially introduce you to Zach Zoya — another incredible, multi-talented artist straight out of Canada,” Kardinall said upon the release of “Slurpee,” Zoya’s Universal debut. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. So happy y’all finally get a chance to see what one of Montreal’s finest has to offer.”
Shabbo is Montreal’s 21 Savage. On the surface, he is soft-spoken and lowkey. But upon diving into his lyrics, one will uncover a much grittier interior.
“I live in a place with no Hydro, We still cookin’ it like a trap. I’m not a shooter but I keep the toolie in case a nigga wanna act,” he raps on his breakout single “No Diggity.” The song can be likened to a little Canadian cousin of Savage and Metro Boomin’s “No Heart” hit.
Since signing to local label Make It Rain Records in 2017, Shabb has dropped a whopping four albums. Each project is an exploration in experimentation, the rapper dipping his feet in new flows and subject matter on every outing. He may not have the same following as others on the list but Shabb is a commanding force during live performances and quietly racks up new followers with every album.
Born to Haitian parents in Montreal’s West Island, Maky Lavender embodies the city’s bilingual spirit like no other.
“I want to be a bridge between both sides [of the city]. Both sides often just don’t understand each other because nobody speaks to each other,” Maky Lavender told Cult MTL in 2019. “I want to put it all together. I put people from the East End, the West, English, French, let’s all do a song together. Let’s all collab, let’s all care about this shit.”
With each project, the artist makes a conscious effort to show his chameleon energy. His ability to match the aura of those he is working alongside makes him the perfect collaborator. Lavender is a testament to the synergetic spirit of Montreal.
He has produced and provided features for the likes of R&B singer Kallitechnis, Francophone-rapper Fouki, and two other artists on this list — Nate Husser and Zach Zoya.
Mr. Wavvy is a music journalist based out of Montreal who misses the Expos dearly even though he was eight when they left the city and barely remembers the game.
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